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By Echo Menges, NEMOnews Media Group
The Missouri State Highway Patrol Dive Team gathered from all over the state to practice above and below the ice at the Baring Country Club Lake in Northeast Missouri, which is located west of the City of Baring in northern Knox County.
A thick formation of ice on the lake allowed for the training, which was held on Wednesday and Thursday, February 9 and 10, 2022.
The team broke through the ice to put divers in the water and help them practice a number of techniques in hazardous conditions.
The Edina Sentinel conducted a question and answer interview via email with the Commander of the team to better understand what the team was doing and why.
Questions and Answers with the Director of the MSHP Dive Team, Captain Mike Petlansky
Q: What is the official name of the dive team?
A: Missouri State Highway Patrol Dive Team
Q: Who is in command of the Dive Team?
A: I am the Dive Team Coordinator and work under the Field Operations Bureau of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Q: What types of incidents does the team respond to?
A: Body recoveries (drownings/boat crashes), criminal evidence (guns), vehicle/boat recoveries. We also assist agencies with underwater sonar searches utilizing specialized equipment.
Q: When was the team established?
A: Missouri State Highway Patrol had an underwater recovery team 1960-1966.
Missouri State Water Patrol established an underwater recovery team in 1979. The Water Patrol merged with the Missouri State Highway Patrol on January 1, 2011, and we continued the underwater recovery team, renaming it The Missouri State Highway Patrol Dive Team.
Q: How often is the team called out?
A: We had 45 dive callouts in 2021. (It is busiest) during the peak boating season Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Q: What are the different roles team members have?
A: Ice diving requires the most staffing of divers to safely conduct recovery operations. Safety is of the utmost importance and we consistently conduct risk assessments and mitigate known hazards. We have redundant safety precautions in place.
It is one of the few times we dive when we are tethered with a harness and rope. Each diver has a tender on the surface. All divers on ice have floatation devices on and Yak Track foot wear to avoid sliding. The tender can communicate with the diver in the water by tugging on the rope a certain amount of times.
We have a team leader known as the On Scene Commander, responsible for the overall dive site safety and strict operational instructions. Another diver has underwater communications with the diver in the water and logs dive times and air checks.
We have a backup diver ready to deploy if the diver in the water has issues. Then, we have another diver ready to assist the backup diver. We also have a backup tender in case something happens to the primary tender.
Q: Why does the team do this training?
A: We attempt to train annually with ice diving (thick ice dependent) because it has a higher risk assessment due to having an overhead hazard of ice above the diver. The diver cannot directly ascend to the surface as we normally do. A lot of moving parts and logistics occur during this evolution and that presents opportunities for on scene leadership and tasking. We rehearse rescue diver drills and perform underwater searches to increase our comfortability in tethered diving. Divers attempt to visually clear under the ice, however, if it is zero visibility the divers will resort to searching by feel and touch.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol is proud to say we can make recoveries in any body of water in Missouri. This training enhances divers’ confidence and abilities when we are called to make recoveries in these conditions.
Q: The vehicles they were working out of – what are those called? What types of equipment do they house?
A: We have two Dive Vans assigned to Sgts. Hoff and Merseal. The vans respond to the recovery scene and have all capabilities to sustain the dive operation. Each van carries full air tanks, an air compressor to fill tanks, and spare equipment (weights, anchors, wet suits, lights, AED, oxygen, etc.), and tools to address any issues we may encounter. Most importantly, heat and cold air when operating in remote locations for divers to dress and prepare for dive operations.
We also have a technical deep dive trailer, connected to a dive van. Our divers are PADI TEC TRIMIX certified to dive down to 300’ using mixed gases for prolonged periods of time. The trailer has oxygen and helium tanks onboard, capable of mixing specific gas levels and compressors to fill the dual tanks.
Q: What is happening while the divers are underwater?
A: They conduct searches underwater by feel or visibility if the water is clear. We stay off the bottom of the lake to avoid disturbing the clear visibility. The divers are always briefed on the operation and are told which type of pattern they will complete. I would assume the divers are conducting a bell-shaped search pattern. The diver would descend and take the slack out of the rope. The diver will go in one direction until the tender tugs on the rope, indicating him to stop. Tender will tug rope again, indicating for the diver to go further out and go the opposite direction. Again, this communication can be done by underwater communications or tugs on the rope. And this would continue on until the on-scene commander is satisfied with the search.
Top-side can sometimes see the bubbles hitting the ice to see where the diver is. The ropes are also marked with distances, so we know how much rope is out and where the diver is, based on the angle of the rope.
Q: How often do they do this training?
A: Hopefully annually, dependent on thick ice.
Q: What are the other locations the Dive Team trains at?
A: We train throughout Missouri, on rivers with swift currents, lakes with deep water, and caverns.
Q: How does one become a member of the Dive Team?
A: Must be a Missouri State Trooper with three years of experience.
Q: How many people are part of the team? What are their names, roles, and where are they from?
A: There are twelve total divers. Two are full-time specialists, under the command of the Water Patrol Division (WPD) whose duties are the Dive Team Leader. Sgt. Kurt Merseal – Troop I – Rolla, and Assistant Dive Team Leader Sgt. Charles Hoff – Troop A – Lee’s Summit. I am also on the dive team assigned in Jefferson City.
The remaining are part-time divers, meaning it is a collateral duty, subject to 24/7 callout are:
Corporal Billy Cole – Troop A – Lee’s Summit – Marine Trooper, Lakes in Kansas City, Smithville Lake, Missouri River
Trooper Steve Peterson – Troop B – Macon – Marine Trooper, Mark Twain Lake
Corporal Adam Smith – Troop C – Weldon Spring – Road Trooper
Trooper Rob Garrett – Troop D – Springfield – Marine Trooper – Pomme De Terre, Stockton Lake, Niangua River
Trooper Andy Ward – Troop D – Springfield – Marine Trooper – Table Rock Lake
Corporal Dean Bartlett – Troop F – Jefferson City – Marine Trooper – Lake of the Ozarks
Corporal Logan Monahan – Troop G – Willow Springs – Marine Trooper – Current River
Corporal Jason Hurt – Troop I Rolla – Marine Trooper – Niangua, Meramec, Huzzah Rivers
Trooper Colby Tierney – Troop I Rolla – Road Trooper
Q: Is there anything you would like to add?
A: The Missouri State Highway Patrol has the capability to make recoveries in any body of water in Missouri at any time. We have dedicated divers who strive to provide exemplary service to the public we serve while learning new techniques and methods of operation to enhance our dive operation response.
Divers adhere to a strict training calendar, with a mandatory swim test, and dive team physicals. We train for the worst; utilizing underwater stress confidence courses, blacked-out masks to simulate having zero visibility in the water to ensure we conduct thorough searches by feel.